Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

20 November, 2006

Weekend Design Challenge: Rethinking the online RPG
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:47 AM

I was at Gen Con So Cal this past weekend geeking out a bit. Good to get some inspiration from the non-digital side of things.

One of the talks I went to talked about different design philosophies. The panel talked a bit about a newer breed of RPG that has broken away from the ponderous D&D model of RPGs. In these “fast food RPGs” (as Peter Adkison lovingly called them), you focus more on role-playing than on combat simulation; in order words, moving away from the miniatures combat model that D&D originally spawned from.

One such game that I picked is called Cat. In this game, the players play as cats that fights against the unseen (by humans) forces of malice. The game is very simple: characters have few stats and they’re easy to remember (Fangs rates how well you bite in combat and how well you carry things), the book is very small and contains mostly fiction, and the sessions are intended to last only a few hours. A rather interesting game, quite a departure from the days of super-detailed D&D character sheets with the encumbrance rating of each coin calculated.

As one person on the panel said, this rethinking of the paper RPG in this way was similar to when movie makers realized they could move the movie camera and edit the movie.

So, today’s challenge is deep: rethinking the online RPG in a similar way.

One thing that really got me thinking about this was seeing demos of Warhammer Online at the convention. One of the people trying out the game died, and a little box popped up saying, in essence, “You Have Died! But, don’t worry, that’s a normal part of the game.” …what? Why do we keep calling it death when it’s not really death. (Yes, yes, Richard, I’m not the first person to bring this up.) But, doesn’t it seem like we should move away from just calling it death when, really, it’s nothing like death at all? Perhaps we should find another mechanic instead?

Of course, one problem is that we can’t just try to adapt this new breed of RPGs to a online. We chose a D&D-like setting because it’s got lots of crunchy math that makes the computer happy. Some would say that it’s all just spreadsheets. And, we stick to this model because it works so darn well with our primary business model. We have to find our own way to move the camera, so to speak. (Well, you can already move the camera in most games, but that’s not what I’m talking about here! :P)

So, bring your thoughts to the table. How can we take the next step in making online games something better? Or, is there something else we should focus on improving?

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  1. You really have two directions to go. Incremental or revolutionary changes, I guess you skip the incremental one as it is obviously the path everyone and their mommy is going down alreay. Whats the revolutionary changes like?

    I think most people will consider several incremental changes to equal a revolutionary change. The rest probably thinks down the lines of revolutionary=casual or revolutionary=player_made_content or similar already deployed methods. (But really they are all nought but incremental changes of cousin mmorpg’s.)

    I make my own search for the “next era” by looking at what I want to do in an mmorpg. Its not related to content or setting, or the casual/harcore debate. Its about relevance of interaction. Which parts of the game can provide relevant interactivity on the multiplayer aspects. (Things like DKP systems or more elaborate social structures are incremental changes.)

    Start with deciding what kinds of relevant desicions a player can make during play within the setting of the game. Then use these desicions to deliver the stuff of which todays players dream.

    Relevant interaction is found within the structure of the world, some old RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate 2 has a seed of this type of stuff where you really chose a place within the game society. Expand on this and allow a player to participate within the the story rather than reading the story. You probably have to reduce the population of each game world to avoid those crazy content production costs.

    Comment by Wolfe — 20 November, 2006 @ 6:41 AM

  2. “But, doesn’t it seem like we should move away from just calling it death when, really, it’s nothing like death at all? Perhaps we should find another mechanic instead?”

    City of Heroes tells you that you collapsed, and you wake up in the hospital. That doesn’t really work as well in a fantasy setting, though, since part of the charm of the deep dark dungeon is the knowledge that many adventurers weaker than you met their untimely end here. It seems unreasonable that you should have a different fate if you can’t slay the beast.

    What about semi-permadeath? It would be a hardcore game, obviously, but try this on for size: You make a character and pick a permanent and unique surname, with the first name not mattering. Dying would be much more rare by changing how combat works and giving both sides more opportunities to flee. This doesn’t matter because you don’t care about drops anyway (since a sword is a sword is a sword as long as your sword skill is at 300). Cowing the dragon is as good as slaying it, because you’re there for the quest and the adventure with your friends. When you do finally succumb to insurmountable odds and die, you lose all your gear on your character but not your player’s housing or items in the bank (this would be a non-item centric game anyway).

    After a week (during which time you have to play alts… death should be punishing), you can make a new character with the same surname and a different first name than your dead character. This character is the child of your previous character and can be a different gender or look much different. They maintain the same skills with a 10% loss (trained by the parent) and have access to any items in your house or bank. They then set off in the adventuring path of the parent.

    In this way, players could also experiment with different looks for their character if they got tired of it (something I do) and they can also allow their character to die for RP reasons. In fact, momentous world events can kill players in a satisfying manner that grants them a heroic end without messing up the story or pissing off the player too much.

    Sun God is attacking the planet? Ulthork the Hero (best warrior on the server) can sacrifice his life in defense of the world! Where he died, a monument with his name is raised up by the thankful people, and his son can take his place and try to follow in his father’s footstep.

    This would be a pretty cool model, IMO.

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 20 November, 2006 @ 10:37 AM

  3. Left a somewhat scattered, longish response over on my own little blog… trackback didn’t seem to work, unfortunately.

    Comment by Craig Huber — 20 November, 2006 @ 2:29 PM

  4. Another thing to think about is the audience. D&D is pretty geeky/nerdy, and that turns off some people. (And turns on others, but let’s not talk about that right now. ;) But, a game about being a cat? That attracts an entirely different audience.

    Especially if the cat-game isn’t about mowing down hoards of orcs (or rabid poodles) for the entire session.

    Some points you made:
    1) Simple mechanics (at least as seen by the player), easy to learn.
    2) Not standard fantasy.
    3) Short games.
    4) Not about killing (although combat might be involved)… or rather, I made this point.

    Take a look at

    Also, take a look at

    The only thing they’re missing is eye-candy and multiplayer… (Since I put the web page up I’ve decided to shorten gameplay signficiantly.)

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 20 November, 2006 @ 4:31 PM

  5. The current (read WoW) model seems to say that content is God. There needs to be lots of stuff to do. Things to kill. Items to loot. Improvements and badges to showcase your investment of time.

    Part of me says, you know, this is what people *really* care about. But I know better.

    A TON of people obsessively play Texas Holdem online, and it’s pretty content light. It’s got 52 cards…. ooooh.

    People really just want something to DO. EA’s Pogo gets a lot of players and it’s just simple little ad supported mini games.

    Comment by Rusty — 20 November, 2006 @ 7:25 PM

  6. One of the up-and-coming Korean imports which just arrived in Japan has an interesting take: its your stereotypical Asian console RPG played in an MMORPG space. Instead of having 8 classes you have 8 *characters*. You’re not playing a priest, you’re playing one of the 15,000 incarnations of Leila The Priest. They then do instanced missions which you play in order and which tell a story. “LFG need one Bob and one Rhymis to do ‘Leila Finds True Love’”. Economic model is heavy on paying real-life cash for items to customize your avatar because otherwise you look exactly like every other Leila walking around, plus the usual “Pay 50 yen for double experience for a week” tickets and whatnot.

    The game’s name escapes me at the moment but I’ve got it bookmarked on my home computer in the “Open if you have some time to waste” folder.

    Comment by Patrick McKenzie — 21 November, 2006 @ 7:14 PM

  7. A short while ago I conceptually developed a RPG based the concept of time travel with nods to Time Bandits, Time Cops, the Matrix and other time-travel stories (which WoW will have their own version with the Caverns of Time in their newest expansion).

    I don’t want to be too descriptive, but I’ll point out key innovative aspects. Firstly, if you have seen the new TV series titled Daybreak, seen the movie titled Groundhog’s Day or seen the most recent Medium expisode titled “Be Kind, Rewind”, you get the core concept: repeating the same scenario, getting clues and learning along the way, until you meet certain victory conditions (which we already do with all video games anyway).

    The innovation is to link each “run” of the scenario by you and other players in a smart and interesting way both for the players and for future iterations/instances of the scenario. Standard video games normally don’t link or chain them. An example using MMORPG raids is that what happened in prior instances of an raid will affect how future instances of the raid will play out.

    Another innovation is leveraging the massive multiplayer aspect of online games is in a similiar way that Patrick talks about the Korean game where you play an incarnation of an established character in the story rather than your own unique character. The scenarios are structured around established characters and the established characters in the story “levels up” instead of your own unique characters. So if in the prior “run” the character you friend was playing acquired a skill, if you play the character on the next run the character may have that skill gained in the prior run.

    Another innovation is how accessible the game can be. As the game is primarily focused on role playing characters and exploring the variations of how a story can be played out via interactions with other characters (NPCs and PCs), it comes naturally to most people. Other gameplay and challenges such as combat, strategy and tactics can be included, but scenarios can be as G-rated as Toontown. Scenario about a group of cats finding their way home will be offered next to a Fellowship of the Ring adventure.

    So in summary, the game is still an accumulation-based RPG MMO. However, instead of focusing on accumulating gear and levels for your character, the focus is on you playing an established character in a story/scenario who gain or loss on each and subsequent play (like leveling up a guild-shared alt).

    The key innovations are:
    1. Each “run” of the scenario are linked and chained. What happened in a prior run of the scenario affects who future run of the scenario will play out. The concept is easy, but the devil is in the details.

    2. How characters in the scenario gain or loss upon subsequent play that leverages the massive multiplayer aspect of online games.

    3. How to make this concept fun and accessible enough for all types of people to pay to keep playing.


    Comment by magicback (frank) — 24 November, 2006 @ 9:19 AM

  8. “this rethinking of the paper RPG in this way was similar to when movie makers realized they could move the movie camera and edit the movie.”

    I have also been thinking along these lines for a while now; we as game developers are just now starting to move beyond learning how to make games into the realm of exploring what we can do with this relatively new ability.

    The above analogy I couldn’t agree with more. I wrote a short article about similar issues a while ago in case anyone is interested. The parallels between the early film industry and the computer game industry are common, which suggests we can learn a lot from reviewing how things turned out for them. Perhaps there are problems we can avoid, and benefits we could pursue, if we look back at film production history with the right perspective. Which is to say, look back while keeping in mind this is a very different beast.

    Comment by Eric Cosky — 8 December, 2006 @ 8:26 AM

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